Four Straw Hats Short of a Picnic

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The Great British Picnic: wicker hampers and tartan blankets, straw hats and pipe smoke, ladies with parasols, champagne flutes and jugs of Pimm’s, excitable chatter and joyous laughter, perhaps a spot of frolicking in the woods, a dip in the lake, a game of rounders and a spread of the finest titbits from the local farm shop, bakery and greengrocer. On this occasion, however, we were having an office picnic. That’s a picnic in the office, in the heart of Bloomsbury. We really should have known better.

“Afternoon chaps!” I chirped, skipping merrily into our open-plan bureau. “I’ve brought some jolly good balsamic vinegar and some fine olive oil from Selfridges; thought we could use them for dipping the bread. What say?” This was met with grunts of approval but little in the way of gusto. Looking around, I saw that nobody was wearing a straw hat of any description – neither boater nor Panama – so I felt slightly less irritated for having left mine at Jonesy Manor, slung over the antique African carving that I use as a hat stand. Furthermore, there didn’t appear to be a wicker hamper anywhere in sight, the coffee table was doubling as a tartan blanket and there weren’t any jugs of Pimm’s on offer either. No joyous laughter or excitable chatter filled the air, not even so much as a wistful puff of smoke from someone’s pipe.

Instead, Stirling was feverishly sending emails while simultaneously recording something to his iPod like Johnny-5 from Short Circuit, multitasking far beyond the realms of the male gene pool. Lawrence was mulling over paper stock for our forthcoming printed edition and was muttering a dark soliloquy under his breath about print margins and distribution costs, and Biggles, slouched on the leather sofa, his blazer creased from recent long-haul travel in a rickety, bullet-ridden tin plane from Ecuador, was reading a copy of The Independent with a vaguely pained expression carved across his stubble-strewn face. It wasn’t a very picnic-conducive atmosphere.

“Chaps, shall we get cracking?” I asked hopefully, eagerly rubbing my hands together as if trying to summon fire. Stirling, finally tearing himself away from the computer and acknowledging human life forms in his midst, slid a large black box from under his desk and placed it upon the coffee table with a loud thud. Silence ensued. We stared at the thing, awestruck, like the apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey. This was a mighty strange picnic hamper. A big, black, alien block. So black that light could not escape from its gravitational pull. Lawrence, being the adventurous and foolhardy one, tried to open the thing, but there didn’t appear to be any seams. It was completely sealed; solid and mysterious. We huddled around, now intrigued by this Chinese puzzle box. Heads were scratched, chins were rubbed, wild suggestions were flung carelessly to-and-fro and several equations and diagrams were scrawled in chalk across a blackboard that I never knew we had.

“Ah ha!” proclaimed Lawrence. He had found the faintest of seams and, like a scene from Indiana Jones, the box opened slowly, menacingly, as if it might explode at any moment, covering the room in shards of…what? Cardboard? Bats flew out in a panic; a jumble of dusty human bones tumbled to the floor, and amidst the shredded paper inside lay the treasure we had been seeking: a bottle of very fine Burgundy, a bottle of Taylor’s LBV Port, a sizeable block of parmesan and a healthy packet of Parma ham. “Is that it?” I asked incredulously, having imagined, as I always do, that the entire contents of Selfridges Food Hall would somehow magically appear inside the hamper like a gateway to a foodie Narnia. “Don’t worry, I bought a baguette to accompany it,” said Stirling. “I’m on a diet anyway,” said Biggles. Lawrence remained silent and shot me a glance that said “Every man for himself, old boy!”

The hamper in question had been supplied to us by Discover the Origin, the organisation representing the prestigious PDO (Protected Designation of Origin), AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) and DOC (Denominazione di origine controllata) badges of honour. PDO status, a European Union classification since 1992, is awarded to a regional food product that has been produced to such a high standard in that region that it cannot be equalled anywhere else in the world. As such, PDO is a way to protect geographical areas and their associated produce, which has often been made in the region for centuries. In the UK, for example, Stilton cheese bearing PDO status can only be produced in Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire. European examples, as per the Discover the Origin black box, include Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and Parma ham that come from the town of, you’d never guess, Parma. In the world of wines, readers will be familiar with the French AOC status and DOC in Spain and Portugal, representing a similarly thorough benchmarking. So, is all this labelling worth the fuss?

Stirling hacked away at the baguette with his military-issue machete that he happened to have lying around from his last sojourn to the Burmese jungle, assuring us that the stains on the blade were due to fire oxidation and not anything untoward, while Lawrence used his antique Arabian Shafra encrusted in rubies and emeralds to slice apart the parmesan. I poured the wine and Biggles, the man on the diet, was the first to tuck into the Parma ham, which evidently looked too good to pass up on. Because we’d run out of suitable crockery, a coffee mug was used as a dipping bowl for the olive oil and balsamic vinegar that I had brought. “Dash it, this is so uncouth,” I muttered under my breath, wrapping a slice of Parma ham around a chunk of parmesan, encasing that within a slice of baguette and dipping the lot into the olive oil and balsamic, before popping it into my greedy gob. It was a larger morsel than I had expected and I struggled to chew it. I looked as if I had just stuffed a cricket ball into my mouth. But nobody noticed, as we were all zealously digging into the spread before us. And yes, it was worth the fuss. It was bloody marvellous!

Conversation flitted from our printed edition to the Serenata Festival to that ill-mannered takeover bid by a certain publishing group that I won’t mention and eventually, inevitably, talk centred on Stirling and Larry’s forthcoming triathlon. Lawrence was due to compete in the half-distance London Triathlon that weekend, being the early days of his tri career, while Stirling was doing the full distance event, followed by another triathlon the following weekend that involved swimming several miles in the sea somewhere off the southern coastline. Yes, we also think he’s insane.

As Lawrence and Stirling became engrossed in talk about wet suits, heart rate monitors, training at 5am in the Serpentine and the best single-speed bikes that money can buy, Biggles and I shared a knowing glance and took the opportunity to swipe the rest of the bread, parmesan and Parma ham while the athletes were otherwise engaged. The wine had been polished off as quickly as the food, so I ladled out the Port and we reclined around the coffee table, now strewn with crumbs and the remnants of our picnic. “What we need now is a cigar,” I said. Nobody had one. Nobody smokes. “Well,” I said with a sigh, “I guess that’s that then.” We stared at the empty coffee table. Something was missing. The strange black box had vanished, presumably to a parallel dimension “Anyone fancy a pint?” asked Lawrence. “I fancy a Pimm’s”, I said. This was met with murmurs of agreement and so we left the office in its crumb-fuddled mess and finished our picnic around the corner at the Rugby Tavern. It hadn’t been the most traditional of picnics, but at least the food and wine had been good. And one couldn’t fault its origins. As we shared a packet of salted peanuts, we all agreed that next time we’ll bring our Panama hats.

More information about Discover the Origin can be found at their website.

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